President Barack Obama told the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday that Americans ought to be humble in the fact of radical Islam, because “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ” as well. In addition to offending much of his audience and the nation with his sophomoric moral relativism, the president also obscured a fact that ought to be obvious but is rarely spoken aloud: as far as the world’s religions go, Christianity has done the most to advance freedom.
There is no other faith that has done as much as Christianity to promote and protect the still-radical idea of individual human dignity–admittedly, partly through trial and error, and partly through borrowing from other sources, including Jewish morals and even Islamic wisdom. (It is one of the great ironies that many of the foundational texts of Western Civilization were preserved by Muslims, who at that time were more interested in collecting books than burning them.)
Of course Christian civilization has at times been brutal, violent, and authoritarian. Yet it has also produced some of the greatest social, political and institutional innovations: the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the Peace of Westphalia, the joint stock company, the education of women, and so on–all of which have tended, over time, to limit the arbitrary power of authority and expand the potential of the individual to enjoy freedom, exercise self-government, and achieve prosperity.
It was Arthur Koestler–a Jew and Zionist–who perhaps best expressed the difference between the Christian idea and its rivals, in his anti-communist novel, Darkness at Noon:
There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community….Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible.
Moreover, within Christendom, the dissenting Protestant sects stood apart for their belief that an individual may, on his or her own, find a path to virtue and connect to God. That idea has since driven America’s political and economic success.
It is true that the totalitarian systems of fascism and communism sprang from Christian civilization–but they were also a rebellion against it, substituting the race or the state, respectively, for the highest moral authority. Both emerged from the vacuum left after the French Revolution, when reason rebelled against faith and order. Liberty has since flourished where reason coexists with tradition, faith, and tolerance–the latter allowing other faiths to flourish alongside Christianity.
The Islamic political ideal is an imperial caliphate, defined by total individual submission to the ruler and collective submission to Allah. The Arab monarchies–by far the most stable systems in the Middle East, outside Israel’s democracy–emulate but do not replicate that caliphate, in that they tacitly accept the nation-state, a Christian invention. Some are putative American allies, but will not be parliamentary democracies soon. Our values may not all be universal after all.
Yet we should not shy away from proclaiming the values and institutions of the Christian world, writ large, to be the best. That does not mean saying or believing, as President Obama put it, that “somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.” What it means is showing we want something more than peace for its own sake–a peace compatible with surrender; that there is a set of values for which we are prepared to sacrifice ourselves, just as our enemies are prepared to do for theirs.
Senior Editor-at-Large Joel B. Pollak edits Breitbart California and is the author of the new ebook, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party, available for Amazon Kindle.
Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelpollak